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SEATTLE — There haven’t been many — if any — occasions where Mike Bethea hasn’t been on the sidelines during his 28 years as Rainier Beach’s boys basketball coach.

But after contracting COVID-19 and pneumonia in late December and January, resulting in a 12-day hospital stay — five in critical care — and more than a month away from his team in the middle of the season, the eight-time state title-winning coach isn’t just happy to be back on the sidelines preparing Rainier Beach for the Class 3A state tournament.

He’s grateful to be alive.

“You just start thinking about all the horror stories about people not getting to see their families again, things like that,” Bethea told SBLive. “And I’m thinking, I don’t want to go out like this.”

Bethea, who is 64, started having trouble breathing two days into a trip to Las Vegas around New Year's Day as him and his wife, Virginia Patu-Bethea, were set to return home. When his flight landed in Seattle, Bethea —who is vaccinated and received his booster shot days before his symptoms emerged — went straight to a hospital after his difficulty breathing worsened.

At first, doctors were preparing to send him home. There weren’t enough available beds, they said, during the nationwide surge of the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Within 10 minutes, he was told they’d need to find him a bed, or he wouldn’t make it through the night.

His oxygen levels weren’t improving, and at one point, doctors told him he was close to requiring a ventilator. Hearing that showed Bethea just how severe it really was. He had heard the last-resort perils a ventilator entails, and outright refused.

“I said, 'Hell no,’ ” Bethea, who has Type 2 diabetes, said. “I said, 'I’m not doing that, I don’t need that thing breathing for me. I’ll figure this out.’

"An array of things start to go through your head. What's going on with me? Am I going to make it?"

Bethea was instructed to sleep on his chest for five days. He could only communicate to Patu-Bethea, or family via phone while he fought for his life, since COVID safety guidelines prevented any hospital visitors. That scared Bethea. A relative around the same age, who was also fully vaccinated and boosted, had just died.

Players, former players and community members rallied to pray for the longtime coach. The team jumped on a Zoom call with him during the early days of his stay and prayed together.

“It was emotional,” junior guard Nahmier Robinson said. “We all love coach Bethea.”

Players dedicated every game to Bethea during his recovery, senior Josh Conerly said.

“We were all on the edge of our seats,” said Conerly, a five-star offensive line prospect. “[COVID] has taken a lot of people.”

    Bethea said their prayer and support helped get him through the long days in isolation.

    On his 10th day, hospital staff allowed Patu-Bethea to see him based on how much he was improving, he said. On day 12, he was released. By that time, he’d lost 40 pounds.

    After he was released and went back home, he brought himself up to speed on the Vikings’ season during the down time, binge-watching old game film and talking to coaches.

    Once he was home and instructed to rest, doctor's orders couldn't keep Bethea away from his team. But quickly, he realized he'd come back too soon.

    When West Seattle High School paid a visit Jan. 21, and the Vikings had a chance to win its Metro League division, he showed up and tried to catch the first half — before he was cleared by his doctor to return.

    “My heart rate took off, I couldn’t breathe. I thought, 'Oh shoot, I messed up,’” Bethea said. “That was kind of a wake-up call.”

    Three nights later at Mount Tahoma, he watched from the top of the grandstands, and popped in at halftime as a show of strength for the players in hopes seeing him there would give them a boost. He was fully cleared to return to the sidelines the second week of February, and has coached ever since.

    All the while, Rainier Beach kept on winning.

    The Vikings punched a berth to regionals earlier this week and are on track to reach the 3A state tournament. And they’ve done it without an elite basketball talent like recent standout graduates Kevin Porter Jr., Dejounte Murray, both now in the NBA.

    Contributions can come from anyone on any given night.

    Bethea credits to his coaching staff, namely longtime assistant coaches David King and Harold Wright, for keeping the ship steered in his absence.

    When Bethea rejoined the team, Robinson said the team had a heart-to-heart where players, coaches, as well as well-known program alums Jamal Crawford and Nate Robinson shared something vulnerable.

    “It got really emotional,” said Nahmier Robinson, Nate Robinson’s son. “Coach Mike, Jamal, Coach Dave, they were crying. It opened us up and we all came closer as a team.”

    Bethea says he feels at about “80 percent” strength on the sidelines as Beach turns its attention toward making a state run.

    RELATED: WIAA regional boys basketball matchups

    The Vikings are the 4-seed entering the state regional round with a rematch with 5-seed Seattle Prep on Saturday at noon at Lake Washington High School.

    The health scare hasn’t spurred or accelerated Bethea’s plans to retire or take a step back from coaching.

    But he said it’s changed his approach — and perspective.

    He's known for his hands-on, in-your-face style in the mold of West Virginia’s Bob Huggins and Indiana great Bobby Knight. Now, Bethea said he’s learned to pick his spots and “let the kids figure it out sometimes.”

    “It’s actually made me more passionate about it,” Bethea said. “It’s something I love to do with kids.”